Revitalizing State History in the Classroom

Maxine N. Lurie, April 1994

In the November 1992 issue of Perspectives, James R. Lehning challenged the notion held by critics of history education that American students are ignorant of their own and the world's history. His concern was with the history they do know—a history restricted in terms of geography, gender, race, and time. American history, he found, is "largely male, white, Eastern, and revolves around the Revolution and the Civil War." It is also distant—almost all of his Utah students were ignorant about either the settlement of Utah or the history of Mormonism.

For the past two years I have been involved with a group interested in revitalizing New Jersey state studies. To get some background information and perspective on the problems and issues confronting us, I offered to look at the status of state studies around the country. What I discovered explains Lehning's comments about his students and is a matter which all historians concerned with history education should know about.

College students in Utah have undoubtedly forgotten their local history. The state requires that it be studied in grade 4 and then (one-half a unit worth) sometime in grades 7 and 8. Not all of this time is spent on history. No wonder that when the students get to college, state history seems distant and irrelevant—whatever they remember must be quite faded.

The situation in New Jersey is similar. State history is taught in the elementary grades.1 State law also requires that it somehow be incorporated into the high school curriculum. Teachers are often unaware of the requirement, and sometimes are ill-equipped to do much about it. Nowhere is there a requirement that teachers learn state history, just that they teach it. Students graduate with a minimal knowledge that, by grade 12, most have forgotten. I have seen the results firsthand. My daughter, who goes to an out-of-state college, has complained that other students, even faculty, poke fun at New Jersey. She knows there are factual, historical rebuttals to their comments, but says she never learned enough about the state in school to come up with answers. The local past is as cloudy in New Jersey as it is in Utah, but the problem goes beyond the borders of these two states.

Status of State History Studies

I recently started to examine the status of state studies in the United States more systematically than I had when I acquired background information for the New Jersey studies group, and I set out to answer two related questions:

  1. What history (particularly state history or state studies) do states require, and at what grade levels?
  2. Are teachers required to learn state history in order to teach it?

The first question proved far easier to answer than the second. I obtained a copy of The National Survey of Course Offerings and Testing in Social Studies, Kindergarten–Grade 12 (1991–92), which was produced by the Council of State Social Studies Specialists. This publication surveys social studies curriculum requirements state by state.

What do states require? In Illinois "patriotism" and the "proper use of the flag" must be taught—period; no state, United States, or world history is mandated. Massachusetts, of all places (as a colonial historian, I find this particularly bothersome), only requires the teaching of the "constitution of the commonwealth," but no state history in a place that has a particularly rich background.

Almost all states, however, require United States history—some in the elementary grades, almost all in high school (one or two years). Most require some European or world history. Nevada requires both United States and Nevada history and government during all four years of high school, but no European or world history.

State history is usually taught in elementary school. Thirty-one states require it in grades 3 and 4, six require that it be taught but do not specify the grade, and twenty-four states require that it be taught in middle school. These figures are far less impressive than they seem at first glance, because there is a considerable overlap of states that require state history in both elementary and middle school—while eight states, like Massachusetts, do not require it at all. Only ten states require that state history be taught in high school (Hawaii mandates one year of "the monarchy" and one semester of more recent history). In six states it is offered as an elective (Minnesota offers state geography but not history). A few states require that the state constitution be taught, but nothing more.2 New Hampshire and New Jersey both have the same vague requirement that state studies somehow be incorporated into the high school curriculum.

What about teachers? Are they required to learn state history? There is no one publication, no one source, which I could find to get a current answer. In 1976 the Maine Studies Curriculum Project conducted a national survey which produced a report that answered this question, among others. The project surveyed forty-nine states and received forty-three replies. Sixty-nine percent of the states that responded had laws requiring state studies, although only 43 percent provided curricula or aids for them. Fifty-four percent had teacher education programs for teaching state studies, but only 38 percent required that teachers learn state history to be certified to teach it. There have been clear changes between 1977 and 1992. For example, Hawaii, which did not require state history then, does now. Massachusetts did then but currently has no such requirement.

To obtain more information, I wrote to fifteen state departments of education.3 To date I have received replies from nine (with no answer from New Jersey). Only Wisconsin indicated teachers have to take state studies (history or geography) in order to teach them. Everyone I mentioned my project to told me Texas required teachers to study state history, but the information Texas sent to me is contradictory.

The Texas Administrative Code of 1988 says that to teach at any level in Texas one must "have had a study of the multicultural society of Texas." However, according to the Texas Education Agency, "There are no particular teacher certification requirements other than a history certificate." I took this to mean state history was not required and wrote for a clarification to be sure. The answer compounded my confusion since it stated that the requirements are set by each institution (college?). "The future teacher of history must take a subject area examination that is based on the public school curriculum. This legal mandate is an indirect means to have a history certification program of courses at the university level that matches the high school history program." This fuzzy answer (does it mean state history is required or not?) may actually offer a potential solution. In any case, Texas does run conferences and provide materials on state studies for teachers.

Closer to home, Donna B. Munger of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, a person who clearly sympathizes with the need for a state studies requirement, wrote: "I am afraid the situation . . . is similar to New Jersey's." In other words, there are no requirements for teachers in Pennsylvania.

To get some perspective on what I was finding, I, like Lehning, read Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s, What 17 Year Olds Know (1987). This study confirmed my feeling that there is a connection between what we require students to learn and what they end up knowing. The study concluded that students knew very little American history and Western literature. In terms of American history, the average percentage of correct answers on a nationally administered test was 54.5. Assuming those with a score of less than 60 percent failed, the report concluded that half the students had failed the test. Based on Lehning's experience, I would guess that if a similar test for state history were administered, 100 percent might fail.

National Recommendations for Reform

Next, aware that others knew there were problems and had proposed solutions, I looked at national recommendations for reforming the history curriculum. I discovered they either omit state history or refer to it vaguely as "community studies." For example, as the Bradley Commission's report, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools (1987–88), noted, "Currently, 15 percent of our students do not take any American history in high school, and at least 50 percent do not study either world history or Western civilization." The commission did not even ask about state history. It therefore is not surprising that the report specifically recommended improvements only in American history, Western civilization, and world history. The report listed subtopics in American history, including "family and local history," but no state history. It also suggested three patterns for teaching history in the elementary schools; the first two patterns include state history in grade 4 (the most frequent current pattern), but the third pattern does not mention state history at all.

In regard to what teachers need to learn, the commission recommends that "completion of a substantial program in history at the college or university level be required for certification of teachers of social studies in the middle and high schools." No requirements are suggested for elementary school teachers (state history or any other) even though they sometimes have to teach state history.

Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century (1989), a report compiled by the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, recommends that community, national, and world history be taught (the last two as a three-year sequence in high school with economics and politics in grade 12), but puts clearest emphasis on the need for increased global knowledge. It never specifically recommends state studies, observing instead that "where mandated, state history and geography can be taught along with the local community, with emphasis upon social changes within state borders." (Emphasis added.) It suggests that local history be used to "help orient students to their immediate environs and encourage them to be more active in their own community." According to the report, such an offering should be removed from grade 4 where it "cannot be taught at any depth" and be placed in grade 7 or 8 after United States history. Undoubtedly there is a need for more national and world history. But the problem with these recommendations is that state studies frequently are not mandated, and where they are it is in grade 4. The recommendations could result in less rather than more state history, which would be unfortunate.

My experience in teaching New Jersey history has been particularly rewarding. Rather than being old-fashioned and irrelevant, state studies makes all history seem relevant to students because it helps them to see that history is literally all around them. An older student, after sitting through a semester of New Jersey history, told me that he would never again drive past a historic marker without seeing it, or drive past a historic site without wanting to stop. Students relate to state history and respond to it with enthusiasm. Colleagues have had similar responses using New Jersey examples to teach geography, literature, and anthropology. I had a student in a course on the American Revolution who became so intrigued by local examples that she would ask, "What about New Jersey?" if I neglected to mention New Jersey.

The Ravitch report recommended not only that more history be taught in the schools, but also that it be enlivened by the frequent use of narratives, journals, stories, biographies, and autobiographies. We should also add state studies to the curriculum and provide state and local examples which make history more immediate and relevant. This can and should be done both in separate state history courses and by including state material in existing United States history courses. For example, in New Jersey it is easy to explain progressivism by talking about Woodrow Wilson who, as governor, pushed reforms through the legislature; to discuss industrialization by pointing to early Paterson, where silk textiles were produced; and to illustrate the suffrage movement by mentioning Lucy Stone's refusal to pay taxes in Orange because it was "taxation without representation." Taking an "it happened here" approach catches the attention of students, particularly those who learn from concrete rather than abstract examples.

There is another justification for the study of state history worth remembering. In "Teaching State History: Anachronism or Opportunity?" Rhoda R. Gilman supports state history because of the opportunity it provides to deal with cultural diversity, to include minorities, women, and families, and to use a microcosm to illustrate the global.4 She argues that state history need not be "dull" or "boosterish," that it can and should be a respected part of the discipline. New Jersey, for example, has always been diverse, is usually interesting, and occasionally actually needs "boosterism."

But Gilman also says that unlike a nation, a state's "identity is not defined by power and politics." On the contrary, we need to remember that states are still political entities that have individual political histories. Our students are (we hope) going to vote for state governors and legislators who deal with state and local issues. Some knowledge of their state's past would help them make rational choices. It might also make more palatable the payment of state taxes, which help provide for state institutions, including colleges, universities, museums, and historic parks.

In the meantime, the failure to teach about our states has given rise to unfortunate consequences. Lehning's students are ignorant, my daughter cannot defend her heritage, and teachers are teaching what they have never been taught. And there are the problems that originally led my group in New Jersey to confront these issues: trouble finding materials for classroom use (particularly on the college level), publishers uninterested in producing new materials because they think the audience is too small, a state historical society on the verge of bankruptcy, a state historical commission nearly wiped out by threatened budget cuts, and a large number of local history museums crippled by lack of support.

Toward Reversing the Status Quo

What are the answers? What can be done to reverse some of this?

  1. Those working on national history educational reform should find room for state studies. The antifederalists were wrong: States have not faded away or been swallowed up.
  2. We can all include more state and local examples when we teach, and we can send students to local historic museums and sites. When state and local examples illustrate broader issues, they can awaken interest in all history.
  3. Organize and support history. On the national level there now exists the National History Education Network to deal with policy issues in history education, and the History Teaching Alliance to promote collaboration. This is paralleled in New Jersey by the Advocates of New Jersey History (to lobby) and the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance (to gather kindergarten through college teachers and staff from museums and historic agencies). Both groups were created in the past two years as a response to problems in the state.
  4. Lobby. Pressure state legislatures to mandate more history (state studies included) at all levels, as well as additional teacher certification requirements. Push for greater support for museums and historical societies (they educate, too). See what history courses local colleges and universities require of prospective teachers (the "Texas" solution may be the most practical).
  5. Share. Collaborate with others at all levels.
  6. Create an audience. The New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance obtained a grant from the New Jersey Committee for the Humanities to run a series of conferences in 1993–94 on New Jersey studies. We are trying to create an audience to take courses, to buy books, and to go to history museums and sites. If we fail, future students will be ignorant indeed and states will fade—at least from history books.


1. A 1979 study reported that New Jersey studies was taught topically (government, industry, Indians, transportation, cities, agriculture, people, communications, recreation, education) most often in grade 4. Kenneth Job, "A Look at What They Are Teaching in New Jersey Studies," New Jersey Education Association Review (May 1979): 13.

2. Figures are based on my analysis of the 1991–92 National Survey of Course Offerings and Testing in Social Studies, Kindergarten–Grade 12. The survey covered all fifty states plus the District of Columbia.

3. These departments of education were selected at the suggestion of colleagues because they were thought most likely to have requirements.

4. See the Organization of American Historian's Magazine of History (winter 1992): 8–9.

—Maxine Lurie has taught part time at Rutgers University for over twenty years. For the past six years, she has taught New Jersey history to undergraduates and teachers at Rutgers. This year, she is also teaching at Seton Hall University and coordinating the Rutgers University at New Brunswick undergraduate public history internship program. In addition, she is cochair of the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance.